Our First Listener... by Richard Freed (Maryland)
[Each of our three evaluators tested the earphones with no knowledge of the others' thoughts or conclusions. DJW]
Shure's latest model SE530 earphone is not entirely new, as it has circulated under a different catalogue number, E500. Early SE530 review units were sent out in E500 packaging because the new packaging was not yet available. The SE530PTH comes with a PTH (push-to-hear) module that enables the user to cut the gain down to virtual inaudibility for taking telephone calls, etc. Both the 530 ($450srp) and the 530PTH ($500srp) come with a Premium Fit Kit that contains a ¼" adapter plug, an airline adapter, a 3' extension cable, a volume control unit that may be connected between the 'phones and the sound source, plus an assortment of ear-tips in a variety of designs. The "Triple TruAcoustic MicroSpeakers" have an impedance of 36Ω and a sensitivity rated at 119dBspl/mW.
I found that the gain control on the PTH module had no effect in controlling the level. The alternative gain control unit without the PTH feature did do that job, but I did not use either of these, since I relied on the gain control in my Bryston pre-amp for that function.
Most of the recordings I used for trying out the SE530 are not at all new. Only one, the BIS recording of the Aho Contrabassoon Concerto, was issued in 2007, and it boasts perhaps the most impressive sound yet achieved on that label. Some of my test recordings go all the way back to the 1950s, but every one of them has some outstanding sonic feature that makes the most of an outstanding performance. In any event, these are recordings with which I am especially familiar because I have listened to them so frequently over the years, for the shear pleasure of hearing them and for testing and demonstrating my sound system as I've added new components.
Sir Adrian Boult's 1961 stereophonic LP remake of the ballet music from Holst's opera The Perfect Fool is something I have regarded as the best orchestral recording ever made. Not the greatest, to be sure, but perhaps the best in ways we can measure — a spacious sonic frame that seems tailor-made for this particular performance of this particular piece of music — and for me it continues to hold that position in Decca's fine CD transfer. In the realm of chamber music, I'd apply the same comments to the Hagen Quartet's remarkable performance of Haydn's "Horseman" Quartet, which is recent enough to have been recorded well into the CD era.
Beecham's LP remake of the Polovtsian Dances was never approved for release by Sir Thomas, and you can hear why in the very track I've chosen for demo: the "Archer's Dance," which is marred by a conspicuously blurred episode from about 0:41 to 0:52. However, the preceding and following portions of that same track capture splendidly the thudding whacks of the bass drum, the raspberries from the trombones, and the pings of the triangle. Felix Slatkin's contemporaneous recording of Gaîté Parisienne opens with a brief overture that includes passages for various small percussion instruments. Reiner's still-earlier recording of the Weinberger piece is very rich in show-off details: triangle, soft cymbals, the majestic Chicago brass, and an organ in the final section.
Lorin Maazel's Russian Easter, with the Cleveland Orchestra, was a showpiece among Decca's analog LPs. It calls for awesome brass sonorities, a significant flavoring of triangle, glockenspiel, small cymbals, etc., and at the very end a timpani tattoo in which the individual beats of the sticks on the skins register with incredible vividness.
The rest of the recordings on the list have similar features, or features in similar categories of sound. The three other fairly recent ones — Hyperion's recording of Sir Granville Bantock's Pagan Symphony, Harmonia Mundi's Chopin Études with Frederic Chiu, and Reference Recordings' Rachmaninoff Symphonic Dances are out-and-out showpieces. In my own crude transfer of the Musique des automates, from Delibes's ballet Coppélia (transferred raw — without limiting, compression, noise reduction or any other form of fine-tuning) I was delighted to hear all those tiny high percussion instruments (which, after all, define the piece) in greater clarity and detail than I had ever heard on the original monophonic LP.
Shure boasts "full-bodied bass," and it is certainly seductive. The low-end is beyond "full": it is lush, and at the same time very well defined. So is the lower mid-range. In all, it's a very agreeable sound, easy to listen to, not at all stressful or fatiguing. In a word, it is mellow, and that in fact is what the Shure people were after. What they were not after, apparently, was either (a) a semblance of a great concert hall experience or (b) a coverage of the entire audible range as achieved on the orchestral recordings I used. To come to the point, the high end is just not there. The triangle, for instance, simply does not come through with the brightness and assertiveness with which it is heard through my B&W 801(iii) — or the less expensive Etymotic ER-4S earphones, whose specs claim a more modest top limit of 16kHz against the Shure's 19kHz. A technical spokesman for Shure advised:
My inference from all this is that the listeners involved in Shure's pre-design tests were individuals whose listening preferences are not oriented toward classical music. Otherwise, instead of suggesting a treble boost, the full range would have been built in, with the option of a treble cut for those favoring mellowness. In any event, boosts and cuts for treble and bass are simply not available on most of the high-end equipment in use today, and my assumption regarding the designated market for the ES530 seems to be borne out further in Shure's promotional literature. A four page list of "Listening Recommendations," a total of 40 recordings, includes only two classical pieces, both of them brief ones for solo piano. (I'm guessing that the recordings referred to in this four-page list may have been gathered on a CD or CDs supplied with the press kit but not in it as presented to me.) Nowhere among these listening recommendations is there a full symphony orchestra, a string quartet, a piano quintet, a woodwind quintet, a chorus, a solo voice, or any classical sound source other than a piano.
In the glory days of the famous V-15 phono pickups, Shure was more focused on enabling maximally rich and detailed reproduction of all kinds of music, and collaborated with recording companies in producing LP test records that measured the range and accuracy of reproducing a broad range of musical sounds, from solo flute to deep gong, from solo piano to full orchestra.
My conclusion is not that Shure has failed to deliver the goods, but that Shure today has simply turned its focus to a different kind of listening as defined in listening test feedback. That audience is definitely well served here. The detail and elegance of packaging maintain the company's high standards. But for listening to classical music the Etymotic ER-4S retains top honors; it even costs less ($330), and comes with a slightly longer cable (though still not long enough to obviate the need for an extension cable).
Recordings Used In This Evaluation
Aho Concerto for Contrabassson and Orchestra (entire work) (Lewis Lipnick, contrabassoon; Andrew Litton, Bergen Philharmonic; BIS CD-1574, Tracks 4-6)
Bantock Pagan Symphony — Scherzo (Vernon Handley, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra; Hyperion CDA66630, Track 3)
Borodin Prince Igor — Polovtsian Dances: Archers' Dance (Sir Thomas Beecham, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra; EMI 66998, Track 7)
Chopin Étude in C major, Op. 10, No. 1 (Frederic Chiu, piano; Harmonia Mundi HMU 907201, Track 3)
Delibes Coppélia—Musique des automates (Robert Irving, Orchestra of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden; My own transfer from a monophonic LP)
Haydn Quartet in G minor, Op. 74, No. 3 — Finale (Hagen Quartet; Deutsche Grammophon 423 622-2, Track 13)
Holst The Perfect Fool — Ballet Music, Op. 39: I, Dance of the Spirits of Earth (Sir Adrian Boult, London Philharmonic Orchestra; Decca 425 152-2, Track 8)
Liszt Symphonic Poem, Hungaria — fanfares (Bernard Haitink, London Philharmonic Orchestra; Philips 438 754-2, Disc 1, Track 2, from 9:16 to ca. 10:40)
Mozart Serenata notturna in D major, K. 239: First movement (Karl Böhm, Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra; Deutsche Grammophon 453 076-2, Disc 1, Track 5)
Mozart Divertimento in E-flat, K. 563 — Movements 1 and 4 (Grumiaux Trio; Philips 454 023-2, Disc 1, Tracks 1 and 4)
Offenbach Gaîté Parisienne (ballet, arr. Rosenthal) — Overture (Felix Slatkin, Hollywood Bowl Symphony Orchestra; EMI 67248, Track 1)
Rachmaninoff Symphonic Dances, Op. 45 — Third movement (Eiji Oue, Minnesota Orchestra; Reference Recordings RR-83CD, Track 3)
Rimsky-Korsakov Russian Easter Overture, Op. 36: Coda only (Lorin Maazel, The Cleveland Orchestra; Decca Eloquence 460 5062, Track 7, from 12:59 to end)
Weinberger Schwanda the Bagpiper — Polka and Fugue (Fritz Reiner, Chicago Symphony Orchestra; RCA Victor 9026-62587-2, Track 7)
Shure SE530PTH In-Ear Monitors
I was intrigued with the idea that an in-ear monitor was a three-way system! Getting a woofer, midrange and tweeter is hard enough in a speaker cabinet. Fitting them, with crossover, in the ear canal was an astonishing accomplishment. I had to hear the result.
I compared the SE530PTH (the same unit used by Richard Freed and later by Phyllis Eliasberg for this three-person evaluation) with my Etymotic ER4P and ER4S (a short cable adapter converts the ER4P to an ER4S). The earphones were fed from the headphone output of my Panasonic DVD-RP-91 DVD/CD player, which has internal processing capable of handling 24-bit/192ksps audio bitstreams.
The Shure SE530 claims an efficiency of 119dBspl/1mW and a nominal impedance of 36Ω; the Etymotic ER4P is spec'd at 106dBspl/1mW and 27Ω; the Etymotic ER4S is listed at 100dB/1mW and 100Ω (the short conversion cable raises the impedance, changing the sound). I used the same-style triple-flange ear seals, which I prefer, on each of the earphones. As best I could, I matched levels as I switched among the three earphones.
I listened to the first three cuts on Grooving Classics using my ER4P, then the ER4S, and chose the ER4S as having the sonic qualities I preferred as the reference against which I compared the SE530.
ER4P vs. ER4S:
CD1 — the ER4P has more presence, with a little more
individual instrument detail. There seems to be a slight cost in the accuracy of
instrument sound and slightly less deep bass with a little emphasis in the
mid-bass. The ER4S' sound gave a more realistic sense of instrumental and
spatial reproduction, more like being in a concert hall's near-front-of-hall
In all three cases the sound field was inside my head, but did not seem constrained.
The much higher efficiency of the SE530 makes it much easier to drive with lower distortion from a headphone amp. It will also draw less power from a portable player's battery.
All of these earphones are excellent, and only on comparison or with critical listening will preferences emerge.
CD1: Grooving Classics - A Strings and Percussion Fest! (First Impression Music FIM-XR24-044; Harold Federman, Northwest Sinfionetta; recorded by Keith Johnson in September 2005.
Mastered by Tam Henderson in April 2006; JVC XRCD24 mastered in May 2006):
Track 1: Variations on a Theme from Haydn's "Surprise" symphony.
Track 2: Mozart "Eine Kleine Nachtmusik" Revisited.
Track 3: Offenbach "Les Contes d'Hoffmann" — Can-Can
Track 10: Bizet "Carmen" — Habinera Fantasia
CD2: Don Angle On Harpsichord (AFKA SK-517; recorded and mastered by Scott Kent. CD released 1990):
Track 1: Donaldson "Carolina in the Morning"
Track 2: Johnson "Charleston"
Track 8: Fucik "Thunder and Blazes"
Track 9: Traditional "Just a Closer Walk with Thee"
Track 14: Walker "Mr. Bo Jangles"
Track 15: Joplin "The Entertainer"
Track 17: Solovyev-Sedoy "Midnight in Moscow — A Fantasy"
Track 18: Goodman "City of New Orleans"
CD3: Verdi Requiem (my recording using the dbx700 for WNYCFM, April 1984; mastered to CD by Scott Kent):
Track 1: Requiem
Track 2: Dies Irae
CD4: Eagles Hell Freezes Over (legally-sold CD in Beijing, China):
Track 5: "Tequila Sunrise"
Track 6: "Hotel California"
Track 15: "Desperado"
Shure SE530PTH In-Ear Monitors
These earphones are, according to the folks at Shure, sound isolating, blocking over 90% of ambient noise. I am the perfect candidate to test sound-isolating earphones. I live next to Massachusetts General Hospital, with ambulances in full-siren arriving many times during the day and night. Across the street is a fire station, and the police station is around the corner. I am also in the center of perpetual street repair and close to the big dig. Peace and quiet are much to be desired, so I welcome any earphone that says it can shut out ambient noise.
The Shure E530 costs $500srp. For your money you get three microscopic speakers in an earbud that delivers realistic sound and good imaging. Plus, it does isolate you from the noise around you. To achieve the isolation you must seat the earbuds accurately — not an easy job. You have a choice of ear seals, none of which I found really comfortable over the long haul, and I couldn't get any of them to seal completely, so some of the precious bass dissipated.
To change the earbuds you need Doby, the household elf from Harry Potter; small fingers are a great help. And the lanyard is so meager that the only thing it can reach is an extension cable so it can reach the music source. Using an additional cable can cause noise at the connection; it happened from time to time. Shure's other earphones have a generous lanyard so I don't understand why these have such an annoyingly short one. But there are a plethora of cables, including one with a Push-to-Hear control that allows conversation without removing the earphones — a nice feature. You can use this cable with other Shure earphones, and probably with phones from other manufacturers.
The accompanying instruction booklet doesn't designate what comes with the earphones, much less describe what all the cables are for. There is a small, zippered case to carry the phones with you and the box the whole thing comes in is elegant silver and black metal.
I have tried many earphones including models by Sony, Sennheiser, Etymotic Research, Koss, and Hearing Components. Some of them sounded every bit as good as the E530s and at a fraction of the price.
All music was played via iTunes on my Macintosh G5 computer.
Mozart Clarinet Concerto in A.
Wagner Die Meistersinger von Nuremburg — prelude.
Glazunov Violin Concerto in A minor.
Joan Sutherland singing various arias.
Chet Atkins and Mark Knopfler.
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